After 50 Years, Cuban Houses To Go Up For Sale

Jul 28, 2011

In the years after Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution, Havana's neighborhoods went through an extraordinary upheaval. As wealthy and middle-class families fled, poorer Cubans moved into their homes.

Now, communist authorities are preparing to legalize property sales for the first time in 50 years, and the city's old racial and class divisions are already creeping back.

House Hunting

The newest, most technologically advanced way to find property in Havana these days involves a dial-up modem. The few fortunate enough to have dial-up Internet access can log on to, Cuba's version of Craigslist.

The island's online housing market isn't waiting for the government's new real estate laws to go into effect later this year. There are apartments listed for as little as a few thousand dollars, but also homes in Havana's western suburbs for well over $100,000 — a fortune in Cuba.

All of these listings are still technically illegal and certainly not available to foreign buyers, but it's the first time in half a century that Cuban property is being assessed at market value, and new labels are cropping up.

"So there is already a 'Blue Havana,' which is the coastal strip, and what I call 'The Deep South,'" explains Mario Coyula, an architect in Havana.

Coyula says that Cuba's changing real estate laws will accelerate a trend already under way: The city's newer and more upscale neighborhoods along the coast will shoot up in value, and poorer Cubans will move south, further inland.

Neighborhoods that have been racially integrated may also change, as money sent from abroad goes disproportionately to whiter Cubans, since they're more likely to have relatives who have left the island.

"Poor people who now live in a nice neighborhood in a nice house maybe will sell their properties to another person with more money and willing to get a better dwelling, and then they will have to go to the periphery," Coyula says.

Neither Coyula nor anyone else has suggested the liberalization measures shouldn't go forward — only that they will bring big changes and risks. That includes the prospect of homelessness, now a rarity in Cuba's paternalistic socialist system.

Even if the Castro government puts mechanisms in place to prevent people from selling off their only dwelling for a big cash payout, many will likely find a way to bribe or skirt their way around the rules, just as they've been doing for years.

Trading Spaces

On Havana's Prado Boulevard, real estate moves the old-fashioned way — really old-fashioned. A man with a megaphone sits on a bench, shouting out the details of the apartment he's offering, as scores of Cuban home-seekers and black-market housing brokers mill about looking to make deals.

Handmade property listings are pinned to the trees or held up by prospective traders. One woman wears a sign around her neck that reads "I want two for one" — looking to trade her larger place for two smaller ones.

Properties here can't be sold legally, but they can be swapped, though there's usually some amount of under-the-table cash to grease the exchange.

On this recent Saturday morning, 25-year-old Walter Lavoe and his girlfriend are trying to do what's almost impossible for young couples here — move in together and start a family. All he has to offer is another apartment in Santiago, on the other side of the island.

"The trouble is that no one will change me a house for an apartment," Lavoe says. "I have to find a [person who has] an apartment and wants to live in Santiago in an apartment. Difficult."

When the new laws go into effect, Lavoe will be able to sell his old place and use the money to buy something in Havana. The city's prices will likely go up, but the emergence of a strong market should also inspire people to fix up their homes if they can afford it.

Manuel Valdez, a dapper 83-year-old who has been arranging housing swaps for 40 years, says Cuba will probably no longer need brokers like him.

"People will be able to find the independence they need, or sell their property, or make investments," says Valdez, dressed in a brown Guayabera shirt with a white fedora.

When asked if he thought the new real estate market would lead to a more divided city, Valdez said many of the people who got homes from the government years ago have already cashed in and moved out. They had a capitalist mentality, he says.

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